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DJ Taylor: What are the Olympics for?

To the reality TV aspirant, 'living the dream' means having your picture in OK magazine

Despite George Orwell's view that international soccer matches werean excuse for young men to kick each other, there is no spectacle like a sporting spectacle. Not the grandest royal investiture, not the most magisterial rock concert, not Live Aid or Millennium night could hold a candle to – say – the sight of Bob Beamon breaking the world long jump record at the 1968 Olympics. The lanky figure pacing the runway; the sudden detonation of speed and flight; bewildered judges registering the fact that Beamon had sailed so far over the pit as to exceed the measuring apparatus: the whole thing remains permanently etched on the consciousness of anyone who saw it.

If this year's Olympiad has, so far, produced a comparable moment, it came on Saturday afternoon when Jamaica's Usain Bolt won the 100 metres in record-breaking time. Again, everything the connoisseur demands from sport was there: the prodigious, colonising talent; the wounded beast (America's Tyson Gay, edged out of the semis by a rogue hamstring); the incidental ironies (Bolt is a 200 metre specialist and had to beg his coach's connivance to run at all). Even better, from the dramatic angle, is the fact that a race is not won until ratified, when the chemists have done their work.

Ask, as utilitarians occasionally do, what the Olympics is for, and the answer is simply this: razzmatazz, oomph, the freewheeling hordes attacking the parched rampart of the velodrome, the simultaneous click of 50,000 cameras. Naturally, particular interest groups involved have their agendas: no doubt the average Chinese bureaucrat doesn't know one end of a coxless four from another, just as the property developer hard at work despoiling the East End in preparation for 2012 wouldn't know a discus if it fell on his head from a great height. To the millions of television viewers, though, the whole thing is simply a variety show on the grand scale, a fortnight-long global party in which the component parts are much less vital than the way in which they are brought and mediated to the public.

The public interest in what takes place in Beijing is, you suspect, pretty much bovine. Apart from a handful of quasi- mainstream sports that get written up in newspapers, most of the Olympic programme focuses on competitions so left-field that the names of their leading lights are virtually unknown. The name of the UK table tennis champion, anyone? Or our clay pigeon-shooting supremo? One of the funniest aspects of this year's media coverage has been the efforts of the Radio 5 Live link-men to seem au fait with the developments in recherché competitions such as dressage and beach volleyball lately come to their notice.

The public, on the other hand, doesn't mind these obscurities, these constant sorties to the synchro-swimming final or the origami team sprint, in the same way that a variety hall audience, once it had said goodbye to the name comedian, was quite happy to take an interest in the plate spinner who followed him. Any sport with a British competitor in it will do, for as well as being about spectacle, the Olympics is also about nationalism, albeit of a rather decorous and encouraging sort. After all, when one thinks of the misuses to which the Union Jack regularly gets put, the sight of it draped around the shoulders of a black athlete as he jogs in celebration around a running track is worth half-a-dozen political pamphlets. The nationalism that one sees at the pool-side or in the velodrome is not, by and large, like the nationalism of the football crowds, neither vengeful nor antagonistic, but merely a collective satisfaction taken in an individual achievement.

In that satisfaction in achievement, too, rests a large part of the Olympics' allure. One thing on which practically all commentators agree is the sheer delight of any British competitor who wins anything. In moral terms – and nothing, deep down, is more of a moral activity than sport – the Games offers the decidedly old-fashioned spectacle of a cavalcade of "ordinary" people being celebrated for virtues like hard work and endeavour and devoting years of their lives to a remote and far-from-guaranteeable triumph, whose contrast with the media landscape running alongside is a bit too strong for comfort. To the reality TV aspirant, "living the dream" means having your picture in OK magazine. To an Olympic hopeful, on the other hand, it means living on hand-outs and getting up at six o'clock every morning to swim three miles for the next four years.

But there are sharper paradoxes than this lurking at the margins of the Beijing party. Although nothing could be more professional than the way in which the Olympic sportsperson goes about his or her business, what is really being celebrated, each time a victorious athlete steps to the podium, is the ancient amateur ethos in which games are won for the glory of winning them and the valiant also-ran is applauded for his part in the spectacle. Naturally enough, money can't altogether be debarred from this arena, but the correlation between achievement and bank balance – the Premiership footballer who knows that each goal scored adds a fraction to his transfer value – is much less flagrant.

At the same time, nothing could be more sharply opposed to these displays of old-style sporting principle than the political and economic context in which Olympiads take place. No politician shaping up to stage the 2020 games is, you imagine, in the least motivated by sport, which generally comes a bad fourth behind prestige, economic regeneration and personal nest-feathering. Interestingly, the public is aware of this contrast: a poll taken last week showed deep unease about the 2012 Olympics and a widespread assumption that it would fail to benefit the parts of London in which it is being staged. All this realises the oddest paradox of all – an international sporting extravaganza, hedged about with venality, graft and ulterior motive, in which, curiously enough, old-fashioned moral virtue is positively encouraged to shine.